This past April I got an e-mail from my good friend Darcy, asking if I wanted to join her and Don on a trip to Russia’s Altai Mountains. “Darn, this is a tough call” I told Darcy. Altai had long been on the top of my list, with several people whom I respect greatly having told me that this region offers some of the best paddling anywhere. But I had slated 2017 as the year to finally go there, to have sufficient time to get back in shape and comfortable on big class 5. The previous season I had badly injured my shoulder and I wanted to give it two years before pushing it the way I would have to in the Altai.
After much back and forth, I realized that this was too good of an opportunity to pass up; to go with a great team to an awesome region, I simply would have to train hard to get shoulder, body, and mind strong again, and fast.
To make the trip possible we joined TwoBlades Adventures, a company run by Egor Voskoboynikov of Russia, Alona Buslaieva of Ukraine, and Tomass Marnics of Latvia. They offer logistics and guiding to some of Russia’s and Central Asia’s finest paddling destinations. Without them, there was no hope to overcome the language barrier and navigate the complex logistics.
The Altai are located in southern Siberia, where Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan meet. This unique geography makes for a rich culture and history. Statues of Genghis Khan are found throughout the region highlighting the Mongol influence, ruins of failed industrial projects are a reminder of the Soviet planned economy, and tough, shirtless and outdoors loving Russian men perfectly symbolize the country’s new found ambition in the world today.
The Altai Mountains are the center of Russian paddling, with incredible rivers and a vibrant community. They also hold a rich river running history, filled with tales of triumph and tragedy descending Siberia’s hardest rivers.
Arriving in Novosibirsk, the closest major airport to the Altai, you get a sense just how big Russia really is. From here, it was another 2 day drive. But the drive was well worth it.
The first river we paddled was the Chuya. The Chuya is the focal point of the Altai paddling scene, in part because the valley is a main transit corridor which makes access and logistics easy. There are several different sections, but the Mazhoy Gorge is the undisputed king. This section is 25 km of big, powerful and at times continuous, class V. Wow, what a river!
The Chuya’s Mazhoy Gorge is also the location of the annual King of Asia Extreme Race, which puts all other extreme races to shame. We were there during the event, but none of us had the courage to race down a section of river that we were merely glad to get to the bottom of. We used the excuse that we had many of the Altai’s other great rivers left to explore, and left Egor and Alona to defend their King and Queen of Asia crowns.
So instead of racing down class V+ against a bunch of Russian slalom athletes and all around kayak phenomes, Tomass and a bunch of Westerners went to explore the Karagem/Argut river. The journey to the put in was already a huge adventure, requiring an all-day off-roading mission through creeks and over mountain passes, often without any semblance of a track or road, Russian style.
Once we could drive no further, we hiked for three hours to the bottom of the valley. A small price to pay for three days of incredible whitewater, starting as a small glacial stream and growing into a proper class V big water run.
Along the entirety of the run, the scenery was second to none, and the Karagem/Argut easily ranks as one of the finest river trips I have ever done anywhere.
Next up was the infamous Book of Legends section of the Bashkaus. This section is revered as much as feared in Russia’s river running lore, due to its storied and dramatic past. I was nervous paddling into this section, having only heard rumors and tales of the continuous whitewater, big rapids, and deep canyon that have caused so many fatalities.
At camp one I slept poorly, with vivid dreams of what lay ahead. The river proved as challenging as expected. Luckily, we all were on the same page; we scouted when we had to and generally played it safe, thanks in large part to the expert guiding by Egor. The trip could not have gone better, and I was ecstatic to have paddled the Book of Legends just a year after my injury.
Other highlight from the trip included the Chulishman, which required a Soviet army truck to get to the put in (the ‘road’ was that bad).
This run consisted of bedrock and waterfalls in the top section, and continuous big water in the lower run.
The Katun offered huge waves and so many mosquitoes that we had to paddle rapids backwards to keep our eyes open. Of course the rich culture, shaped by the regions unique history and geography, only added to those experiences.
My paddling experience was made a lot more comfortable thanks to my Kokatat Gore-Tex Meridian dry suit, which kept me dry and comfortable in all conditions; whether paddling a multi-day trip on a glacial river, standing around in the cold rain at camp, or doing long and onerous portages in the Siberian summer heat. Thank you Kokatat for making such awesome gear!
After four weeks of almost non-stop paddling it was time to start the long drive back to Novosibirsk and return to the West. The Altai Mountains were long on the top of my list, and if anything, they surpassed my highest expectations. Russia offers some of the finest whitewater anywhere, flowing through beautiful scenery and with a rich culture and history. Truly a trip to remember.
A huge thanks to Don, Darcy and the TwoBlades team for such a great trip!
The Altai Mountains were long on the top of my list, and if anything, they surpassed my highest expectations.